Written by Jing Cheng.

On April 12, 2016, Wei Zexi, a 21-year-old college student from Xidian University in Shaanxi China died of synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. His death took over China’s Internet over the last week. On Sina Weibo, the hashtag #Wei Zexi Baidu Promotion Incident# invited 1.13 billion reads and 168,000 comments, and Wei’s post on Zhihu (知乎) (a Q&A website like Quora) attracted 46,000 supporting statments and thousands of responses. According to Xinbang data, over a couple of days there were more than 17,000 articles written on Weixin (微信), among which up to 110 articles attracted more than 100,000 reads. The online outcry over Wei’s death was largely targeted at an Internet company, Baidu, China’s alternative to Google.

“Baidu is evil”

Baidu is blamed for being so profit-oriented that it lists paid medical ads above all other information without properly verifying their credentials. Wei’s Zhihu post reveals his Baidu search led him to go for therapy at the Second Hospital of Beijing Armed Police (北京武警第二医院), shown as one of the top results in his Baidu search. The hospital claimed the immune therapy was a research collaboration with the Stanford medical school, which was later found to be a lie. Having spent more than RMB 200,000 (mostly borrowed) at the hospital, Wei’s parents did not see any improvement. Just a few weeks before he died, Wei wrote online, “I had no idea that Baidu could be so evil”, accusing it of ranking medical information on the basis of the amount of money paid by medical service providers.

Responding to the incident, Baidu Promotion (百度推广), the department in charge of Baidu advertising products, made two statements on its Weibo account. The first tweet (on 28 April) claims, Baidu investigated the case and found that the hospital in question is a qualified Tier-1 public hospital. The second one (on 1 May) says Baidu is proactively submitting an application to the related authorities in charge of the hospital and an appeal for an inspection. Clearly, Baidu is attempting to direct public attention to the responsibility of the authorities which certified the hospital as a top-level institution. However, its crisis management seems to have achieved nothing but add fuel to the fire. Its responses are regarded as “arrogant”.

In addition to the Baidu Tieba forum case, in which Baidu sold its rights to healthcare companies to run its forum for haemophilia patients in early January this year, Wei Zexi’s experience has triggered loud calls to boycott Baidu, with some appeals for Google’s return to China. Some Internet users now call Baidu 百毒, which means 100 poisons, a homonym in Chinese.

Amidst the public anger over Baidu’s enterprise ethics, Baidu’s competitors, including Sina Weibo, Tencent Weixin, and 360.com, took the opportunity to attack Baidu by widely covering this incident.

As the scandal escalated, the state mouthpiece, Xinhua, accused Baidu of placing profit considerations over social responsibility. On 2 May, the Cyberspace Administration of China announced that it was sending a team to conduct a joint investigation into Baidu with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce and the State Health Commission. Baidu shares plunged by almost 8% on the day of official investigation.

Yet, the question is, should Baidu be the major party held responsible?

Who else?

A widely-circulated article titled A Young Man Died in the Hands of Baidu and Military Hospital raises public attention to the contract relationship between the oncology department of the hospital with two private hospitals which are both registered under Putian (莆田) Medical Group. Putian is the largest Chinese private medical group owned by businessmen from the south-eastern Fujian province. It is alleged to have overpriced treatments and malpractices in advertising, but owns more than 80% of private hospitals in China. Since the military hospitals are not in the charge of the State Health Commission, it leaves a vacuum of inspection for the military-affiliated hospitals.

On 3 May, the Central Military Commission and the Armed Police together with the National Health Commission announced investigation into the hospital. One day later, the hospital closed for “internal reorganization”.

While questioning the hidden link between Putian and related authorities, Internet users are increasingly concerned about which hospitals are associated with Putian. They tried to discover how Putian developed into a big enterprise and, most importantly, how people should distinguish Putian hospitals from normal hospitals, which should have been the issue for investigation by the state authorities.

In an online survey conducted by Sina, although less than 3% of the participants think Baidu should not be held responsible for Wei’s death, more than half think the main responsibility should lie with the related authorities in charge of hospital inspection. Notably, a weibo article, viewed by 5.48 million netizens, claims, “while we bombard Baidu, we should not forget that behind it stand the Putian hospitals, the military hospital, and the state inspection authorities – they are all parts of the evil”.

What’s next?

This ongoing incident exposes not only problems in Internet advertising but also outsourcing issues and hidden corruption in medical industry. It unfolds one more case about power and its abuses in China.

Now, searches on Baidu for medical treatments yield no sponsored results; the hospital is closed down temporarily, with some patients and their families protesting around the gate. Unsurprisingly, it appears that the government has begun to cool down the incident by stopping wide coverage and deleting some widely-read articles (for example WeChat article on the joint investigation with over 100,000 reads).

Wei’s death is tragic, but the ultimate tragedy is that the problem continues and responsibility is again put aside. One netizen said, without democracy absolute power leads to corruption. Today we are targeting at Baidu, but tomorrow there will be other Internet companies called Qiandu (千度) or Wandu (万度).

Jing Cheng is a PhD student in the School of Politics and IR, University of Nottingham.